Demystifying the ancient art of glassblowing

Russell Carson taking a gather from the furnace. — Lily Cowper

Russell Carson is an Island glassblower whose works will soon become available at Salte in Edgartown and Morrice Florist in Vineyard Haven. He makes every cup and plate by hand in Alan Cottle’s Lambert’s Cove Glass studio, within the grounds of Cottle’s idyllic Blackwater Farm. The MV Times met up with Russell to gather some hot tips on glassblowing.

At the risk of sounding naive, glassblowing seems inherently easy. This is how Russell Carson makes it look. He whips the blowpipe around with extreme focus and nonchalant spinning moves, his eye on the red-hot end of the stick. It’s like a jōjutsu battle, but it’s only himself fighting with a gather of molten glass and the invisible force of gravity. Then there’s me, the audience member, dodging the heat.

Glassblowers must master the movements with muscle memory, and this is what makes it so relaxed. But I can’t imagine it’s like this in every sense. You see, there’s a difference between Russell’s work and the work of most other professional glassblowers.

The furnace holds recycled glass shards, which melt to form molten glass that Russell can use to make his pieces. They aren’t cooked as long (try 1 hour versus 24 or more), which is done to preserve the glass’ natural imperfections. “Glass itself is inherently flawed,” Russell says. The inclusions are more interesting to him than the glass many glassblowers seek, which is generally cooked longer before being blown, in order to thin the bubbles out and create a smooth finish.

Glassblowing, like martial arts, is an ancient practice, with years of dedicated glassblowers using trial and error to form proper procedure like this. But this isn’t a conservative’s game at Lambert’s Cove Glass, so best practices are out the window. Russell Carson’s glassblowing is abstract art to me, and the maker himself is complete with all the characteristics of an abstract artist. His cupmaking dance is loose; he’s laid-back about the process, the color, the shape, and the end product. “To work like this, you have to be one with the material,” he says. One with the material? Is this guy Mr. Miyagi and I’m the Karate Kid?

He slouches at the bench, casually spinning the blowpipe as though it’s a fifth limb. The glass is smooth and even as he spins and widens it, now thin and perfect. I’m thinking its shape could have come right out of the assembly line, and it’s all set for shipment. But the look on his face says it isn’t quite finished yet. “Then you just smack it around a little,” he says, tapping the rapidly hardening glass. The tool forms ripples like pond water. The once symmetrical shape is now complete with humanizing dimples. “And then it’s done.”

Today Russell is alone — other than me, and the family of cows lingering within eyesight in the surrounding fields. However, Russell tells me he is usually accompanied by a team, to carry out more complex projects. There is apparently a plethora of glassworkers on this Island whom he can call upon to help him out for the day. They aren’t full-time like Russell, many working other jobs like bartending, boatbuilding, or working at the fish house. This to me adds some romanticism to the whole thing — the idea that a secretly talented craftsman could be pouring your drinks at the bar or cutting fish in Menemsha, wearing those delightful orange overalls. It also gets me thinking about the glassblower in all of us, even myself.

Russell let me try it after that. Wisely, he doesn’t allow me direct contact with the furnace. I’m ready to go, but it’s when he hands me the glowing red staff that I start to feel too small for my trousers. I’m supposed to spin it, twist it, and blow into it, all while trying not to get burnt. Not to mention the glass is hardening before my very eyes. I blew into the pipe: a feat easier than blowing a trumpet, and harder than blowing through a straw. The glob at the bottom blew up like a bubble. “Will it pop?” I asked. Apparently it could, if I blew hard enough. I was tempted to test my limits and freak Russell out, but I knew my lungs couldn’t take it. In the end, I made a glass ball, and in it I noticed the small speckled inclusions that made my orb special.

My training that day taught me many valuable lessons. On a scale of zero to the classiest, most intricate art forms, I always thought glassblowing was right up there with porcelain painting. This is true, but the way this guy works has shown me that precision is not at the forefront of this practice. Maybe it’s because if you mess up in glass, you can try, try again.

Anyway, it doesn’t bore me like most art does, which I think should be the real goal of a finished product. Just like the strokes of an oil painting, through glass you can see the details of the artists themselves, and the lengths they took to make it. You can see the character of the glass too, and read its memoirs through its cryptic scratches and bubbles. This glass started as nothing, then became something, then shattered, melted in the furnace, and became something again.

Lambert’s Cove Glass is open by appointment only. Contact for more information.